It's only January and I may have had my most interesting interview of 2012.
I had coffee recently with Denny Smith, who's appeared in this column for his support of same-sex marriage and his work to defeat the upcoming marriage amendment. I like talking with Smith, 67, a passionate man whose life has taken turns he never imagined years ago as a conservative, fist-pumping basketball coach.
Turns out I like talking with Tom Struthers, too.
After I wrote about my own opposition to the amendment, Struthers did a surprising thing. He e-mailed me (that's not the surprising part, trust me). The surprise came in his tone. He was civil and genuine. Struthers, who "reveres marriage as sacred," wondered if we might have a polite and informative conversation around what may be the year's most volatile issue.
Was such a thing possible? Read on.
I e-mailed Smith, who was eager to join us. Over cups of caffeine, Smith and Struthers, a 52-year-old professional fundraiser for nonprofits, sat face-to-face, took notes and talked. Mostly Smith talked, but that's how Struthers wanted it.
"I want to listen," said Struthers, of Victoria. "I'm not an expert. I'm seeking knowledge. I'd like to concentrate on what we have in common."
"I appreciate this so much," said Smith, founder of the St. Cloud-based nonprofit, Winning Marriage Equality (www.wmenow.org). "No vehemence. Just, hey, let's talk about this."
They have a lot in common. Both were raised Catholic. Both are happily married; Smith for 43 years, Struthers for 23 years. Both are fathers. Struthers' children are 19 and 16. Smith's three kids are grown. One of them is gay. That son, Kyle, and Kyle's partner of 17 years, Joe, can't live together in the United States because Joe is from the Philippines. When Joe's student visa expired, he was forced to leave the United States, which wouldn't have happened if they could marry. Their very long-distance relationship makes Smith cry.
"One of my goals is to have my family together in my home before I die," he said.
Struthers, a former Big Brother and coach, understands a father's love. He thinks "it may be the reason I exist." He respects opposing views. He grew up the youngest, and only son, of five children, learning how to "respectfully disagree." It was an important skill in a household of "five mothers."
But he's struggling with the marriage issue. Here are some of his truths, shared with me in that first thoughtful e-mail:
"Marriage is difficult. Some same-sex couples stay together longer than some heterosexual couples. Loving and engaged parents are the key to happy, educated, and well-adjusted children."
Things get murkier for him from there. "I have long been of the belief that same-sex couples should be allowed all the legal and economic benefits of other couples," Struthers said. "It's the word 'marriage.' We are not embracing it, upholding it. It's being attacked, neglected. To me, it's something that needs to be appreciated more by our society."
"Same-sex couples are saying, 'We don't want to attack it,' Smith said. "'We want to be part of it.'"
"I hope this isn't a tough question," Struthers said, "but by being loving and lenient, you may send the wrong message to kids. I struggle with whether sexual attraction is chosen or God-given. Some kids experiment and then they decide."
"It's a big concern that people have," Smith said. "But there's a big difference between experimentation and orientation. How did you choose your orientation?"
"It was there."
"It's hard to change our own beliefs," Smith said. "It really is. Marriage isn't about sex. It's about love. It's about commitment and walks in the park. It about when you've had a bad day coming home and having someone to share that with you ..."
"The Catholic Church would say [marriage] is about sex," Struthers said. "That's where sex happens, for the procreation of kids. What position should the Catholic Church take?"
"I don't know all the answers," Smith said. "No matter what, compassion is the way to go."
Struthers nodded. "Compassion is trying to understand another's point of view. If people can come together with diverse opinions and there is a change, that's among the richest of human experiences. I either am changed or, at least, I see his side of the story. Religious faiths will be examined on this issue," Struthers said. "I appreciate the human aspect of this as well, and the opportunity to listen to another father."
Smith probably won't know how Struthers votes in November. He does know that two men could sit down and talk, refusing to default to the screeching extremes of public debate. "As the father of a gay son," Smith said, "I couldn't ask for more."
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